While many people around the country were easing into a pleasant Sunday morning with coffee and some quiet contemplation on the week that was, Te Akau Racing boss David Ellis was hard at work putting the finishing touches on his preparation for the New Zealand Bloodstock National Yearling Sales which commence at Karaka on March 7.
Ellis considers the many hours he puts in to inspecting the more than 1000 yearlings that will go under the auctioneer’s hammer during the six days of the sale a labour of love, but also one of the most critical elements that drives the success of his multi-faceted Te Akau operation.
That preparation has seen Ellis select some of the best equine athletes New Zealand has produced in the past two decades, with the likes of Probabeel, Melody Belle, Avantage, Te Akau Shark and Darci Brahma all purchased from Karaka and then developed into world class talents.
Horses purchased by Ellis won a combined fifteen Group One races in Australasia last season and despite that remarkable achievement, Ellis knows his thriving syndication business depends on his ability to identify and secure the best of what will be on offer at Karaka in 2022.
“This is probably the busiest time of the year for me, with long hours examining and inspecting yearlings all over the country,” Ellis said.
“In saying that, it is something that I love and thrive on each year, so I don’t really consider it to be work at all.
“We’ve seen all the yearlings in the sale and have done our homework on each of them. I’m just sitting here this morning (Sunday) going through the catalogue, checking my notes and double checking all the details on the horses we have on our short list.
“On Tuesday I will head up to Auckland for a fortnight and begin the inspections on the auction grounds as we get ready for the sale to start.
“For me, the goal has always been to buy, train and race the best horses that our world renown breeders produce here in New Zealand.
“If you want to do that, you have to be at Karaka as that is where they sell those horses.
“Our success rate over the last ten years speaks for itself and that can be seen with weeks like we have just had where we won eight races around the country from Riccarton to Pukekohe which included a stakes races in that tally.”
The last seven days represent a microcosm of the success of trainer Jamie Richards this season, with the Matamata conditioner securing 22 stakes races in New Zealand and a further five in Australia, while the stable is within spitting distance of racking up prizemoney of $5 million in New Zealand alone for the season to date.
Ellis is confident that momentum will be maintained when Mark Walker takes over from Richards, who is moving to Hong Kong in April, as he sets about purchasing the best local talent at Karaka for Walker to mould for the loyal band of Te Akau owners that he has built up over the years.
“There is nothing better than seeing the joy and excitement that our owners get from winning races,” he said.
“It’s like a drug really as I just can’t get enough of it.
“We back ourselves to buy the best and, in that respect, I think experience is the key to it all.
“I have definitely refined my approach over the years, and I think a key is being able to visualise just how a horse will develop and mature.
“New Zealand has three $1 million races with the two Karaka Million contests and the New Zealand Derby, which are all for the younger horses.
“We try to buy the types that can compete and win those races while also being acutely aware of what riches lie over in Australia as well.
“It is fantastic to welcome Mark Walker back from Singapore as he prepares to take over at the helm at Te Akau as Jamie heads out on his exciting opportunity in Hong Kong.
“We are thrilled for Jamie as it is richly deserved, but I know Mark is itching to get started as he already knows every horse in the stable and he has only been back for just over a week.”
Despite the sale being shifted away from its traditional late January date this year due to the COVID pandemic, Ellis is confident it will be successful.
“The fact that the sale is later this year doesn’t really make much difference for us and how we approach things,” he said.
“One of the positive aspects is that it allowed our staff to have some much-needed time off over the Christmas period, which is something they really don’t normally get.
“It has meant that there have been a few sales across the Tasman that have been ahead of this one, but the simple fact is that if you want to buy the best we as a nation offer, you can only get them here, so I would expect there to be enormous interest again this year.
“We will also be putting together separate colts and fillies’ syndicates again this year, as they have proved extremely popular in the past.
“The fillies we select have very strong residual value no matter what they do on the track, while there are currently seven or eight stallions standing here and in Australia that have come from Te Akau syndicates, which is extremely satisfying for us.”
One of those stallions until his untimely passing last year was Burgundy who Ellis purchased as a yearling for $1.3m out of the New Zealand Bloodstock Yearling Sales and went on to win seven races, five at stakes level including the Gr.2 Cambridge Thoroughbred Breeders’ Stakes (1200m).
The son of Redoute’s Choice is the sire of Saturday’s Gr.2 Matamata Breeders’ Stakes (1200m) winner Maven Belle, who was bred by Ellis, his wife Karyn Fenton Ellis and Mark Walker and is raced by the Te Akau Maven Belle Racing Partnership.
“I’m not sure that people realise just what a thrill it was for us on Saturday when Maven Belle won and it still tugs at the emotions just talking about it 24 hours later,” he said.
“Funnily enough she is one of our homebred fillies that we were intending to race ourselves but when Karyn put all the syndicates together after the sales last year, she came to me and said we need some more horses as the demand was so strong, so we went out and picked out two or three of our top prospects and she was one of them.
“She comes from what we term our middle barn at Matamata, where Nicole Shailer is the foreman.
“Our three runners in the Breeders’ Stakes all were from that middle barn and when I asked Nicole on Saturday morning who would be our best chance, she was adamant it would be Maven Belle and she was spot on.
“Winning that race is a massive thrill and I think she has a very promising future.
“Mind you, Probabeel, Avantage and Melody Belle all came from that middle barn, so she has some big shoes to fill.”